[G.R. NO. 157438 : October 18, 2004]
HEIRS OF GREGORIO LICAROS; namely, CONCEPCION B. LICAROS and ABELARDO B. LICAROS, Petitioners, v. SANDIGANBAYAN and REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
Basic is the rule that only the allegations of a complaint may be used to determine whether a cause of action is being pleaded. Whether these are true or false is unimportant at this point. The test is, assuming the allegations to be true, can a valid judgment, as prayed for by the plaintiff, be rendered by the court? If so, then the complaint states a cause of action.
In the present case, the Second Amended Complaint contains sufficient allegations to implicate Gregorio S. Licaros in an alleged conspiracy to accumulate ill-gotten wealth. The contentions that his acts were done in good faith, or by the Monetary Board are matters of defense that cannot abate the Complaint upon a motion to dismiss.
Before the Court is a Petition for Certiorari1 under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court, seeking to nullify the August 13, 20022 and the February 6, 20033 Resolutions of the Sandiganbayan in Civil Case No. 0005. The decretal portion of the first assailed Resolution reads:
The second challenged Resolution denied petitioners' Motion for Reconsideration.
Gregorio S. Licaros, petitioners' predecessor-in-interest, served as governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines from 1970 to 1980, during the incumbency of then President Ferdinand E. Marcos. He died on August 3, 1983.
On July 17, 1987, the Republic of the Philippines - - through the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), assisted by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) - - filed a Complaint for reversion, reconveyance, restitution, accounting and damages against former President Marcos and his alleged crony, Lucio C. Tan. The Complaint, docketed as Sandiganbayan Case No. 0005, summed up the nature of the action as follows:
Aside from the main defendants (Marcos, his wife Imelda R. Marcos, and Tan), twenty-three other persons - - who had purportedly acted as their dummies, nominees or agents - - were likewise impleaded in the Complaint. It alleged, among others, that Tan - - with the connivance of some government officials, including Central Bank Governor Gregorio S. Licaros - - had fraudulently acquired the assets of the General Bank and Trust Company (GBTC), now known as the Allied Bank. A pertinent portion of the Complaint reads thus:
Despite the allegation, Licaros was not impleaded in this Complaint or in the subsequent Expanded Complaint.
On September 13, 1991, four years after the filing of the original action,7 the Republic filed a Motion for Leave to Amend Complaint and for Admission of a Second Amended Complaint, which impleaded the Estate/Heirs of Licaros for the first time. The Amended Complaint, reiterating earlier allegations in the Expanded Complaint, detailed Licaros' participation in the alleged unholy conspiracy as follows:
The Amended Complaint restated the same causes of action originally appearing in the initial Complaint: (1) abuse of right and power in violation of Articles 19, 20 and 21 of the Civil Code; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) breach of public trust; (4) accounting of all legal or beneficial interests in funds, properties and assets in excess of lawful earnings and income; and (5) actual, moral, temperate, nominal and exemplary damages.
On September 3, 2001, the heirs of Licaros filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. Essentially, it raised the following grounds therefor: (1) lack of cause of action and (2) prescription. On October 12, 2001, the Republic filed its Opposition to the Motion.
Ruling of the Sandiganbayan
The Sandiganbayan held that the averments in the Second Amended Complaint had sufficiently established a cause of action against former Central Bank Governor Licaros. Ruled untenable was the argument of petitioners that he could not be held personally liable, because the GBTC assets had been acquired by Tan through a public bidding duly approved by the Monetary Board. According to the anti-graft court, this argument was a matter of defense that could not be resorted to in a motion to dismiss, and that did not constitute a valid ground for dismissal.
It was immaterial that Licaros was not a business associate of the main defendants; and not an officer, a director, or a stockholder of any of the defendant corporations. The paramount issue hinged on his acts as Central Bank governor, particularly his participation in an allegedly illegal conspiracy with Marcos and Domingo to give undue advantage to Tan's bid for the GBTC assets.
The Sandiganbayan also brushed aside the claim of petitioners that the action against Licaros had already prescribed. It pointed to Section 15 of Article XI of the 1987 Constitution, which mandated that "[t]he right of the State to recover properties unlawfully acquired by public officials or employees, from them or from their nominees or transferees, shall not be barred by prescription, laches or estoppel."
Hence, this Petition.9
In their Memorandum, petitioners raise the following issues10 for our consideration:
The Court's Ruling
The Petition has no merit.
Cause of Action
A cause of action exists if the following elements are present: (1) a right in favor of the plaintiff by whatever means and under whatever law it arises or is created; (2) an obligation on the part of the named defendant to respect and not to violate that right; and (3) an act or omission constituting a breach of obligation of the defendant to the plaintiff or violating the right of the plaintiff, for which the latter may maintain an action for recovery of damages.12
The allegations in the Second Amended Complaint clearly and unequivocally outlines its cause of action against Defendant Licaros as follows:
The Second Amended Complaint was unambiguous when it charged that Licaros, during his lifetime, had conspired with the main defendants - - particularly former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Imelda R. Marcos, Lucio Tan and Philippine National Bank President Panfilo O. Domingo - - in facilitating the allegedly questionable transfer of the GBTC assets to Tan.
This charge of "conspiracy" casts a wide net, sufficiently extensive to include all acts and all incidents incidental, related to or arising from the charge of systematic plunder and pillage against the main defendants in Sandiganbayan Case No. 0005. The assailed role of Licaros as Central Bank governor in the questioned GBTC deal is not excluded therefrom. If proven, the allegation of conspiracy may make him liable with his co-defendants.
The alleged conspiracy to defraud the Republic put the case against the Estate/Heirs of Licaros squarely under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan. Said the Court:
No Ground to Dismiss the Amended Complaint.
In Virata v. Sandiganbayan,15 a similar case for reconveyance, reversion, accounting and restitution of the allegedly hidden loot of the Marcos regime, this Court denied petitioners' prayer for the dismissal of the Expanded Complaint, insofar as it had impleaded him. Applicable to the instant case is our pronouncement therein:
"The essential elements of a cause of action are a legal right of the plaintiff, a correlative obligation of the defendant, and an act or omission of the defendant violative of said legal right. The test of sufficiency of the facts to constitute a cause of action is whether or not, admitting the facts alleged, the court could render a valid judgment upon the same in accordance with the prayer. As stated in Adamos v. J.M. Tuason & Co., Inc., (25 SCRA 529), 'It is a well-settled rule that in a motion to dismiss based on the ground that the complaint fails to state a cause of action, the question submitted to the court for determination is the sufficiency of the allegations in the complaint itself. Whether these allegations are true or not is beside the point, for their truth is hypothetically admitted. The issue rather is: admitting them to be true, may the court render a valid judgment in accordance with the prayer in the complaint? So rigid is the norm prescribed that if the court should doubt the truth of the facts averred, it must not dismiss the complaint but require an answer and proceed to hear the case on the merits.' "16
Starkly similar to the foregoing discussion, the herein petitioners are seeking the dismissal of the present case, because (1) the actions imputed to Licaros as Central Bank governor were allegedly official acts of the members of the Monetary Board acting as a collegial body; and (2) the acquisition was done through a public bidding and in good faith. These contentions are evidently matters of defense, the veracity of which must be determined in a full-blown trial (or in a pretrial stipulation), and not in a mere motion to dismiss.
The instant action for reconveyance, restitution, and accounting impleads the Estate/Heirs of Gregorio Licaros for previous acts committed by the decedent during his lifetime, more particularly for conspiring with the main defendants to prejudice the Republic. An action to recover ill-gotten wealth is outside the purview of the ordinary rules on prescription, as contained in Article 1146 of the Civil Code.17 Section 15 of Article XI of the 1987 Constitution states:
The intendment of the foregoing constitutional provision - - exempting actions to recover ill-gotten wealth from the operation of the general rules of prescription - - presumably lies in the special attendant circumstances and the primordial state interests involved in cases of such nature.
From the preceding discussion, it is clear that any action involving the recovery of unlawfully acquired properties against Licaros or his transferees, may not be deemed to have prescribed. The language of the Constitution, the law and the Rules of Court is clear and unequivocal. Clearly, the Sandiganbayan did not commit any grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction when it issued the assailed Resolutions denying, for lack of merit, petitioners' Motion to Dismiss.
Pendency of GR No. 152551 Inconsequential
Petitioners further argue that in not dismissing the Complaint against Licaros for his acts as Central Bank governor, the anti-graft court is in effect passing judgment on the validity of the liquidation of the GBTC and its acquisition by the Lucio Tan group. They contend that the Second Amended Complaint, insofar as it had impleaded Licaros, was clearly pushed beyond the Sandiganbayan's jurisdiction, as the issue is presently being raised in GR No. 152551 (General Bank and Trust Co. v. Central Bank of the Philippines et al.), pending before this Court.
Suffice it to say that, having established the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan over the Second Expanded Complaint and without prejudging the merits of the aforementioned case, this Court believes, and so holds, that a further discussion of this third alleged error raised by petitioners is no longer necessary.
This Court is as interested as the government in recovering ill-gotten wealth. We commend the present leadership of both the PCGG and the OSG for their demonstrated zeal in prosecuting this case. Asking only for an extended period of 40 days, the Office of the Solicitor General has filed its Comment and Memorandum within record time.18 Petitioners are also to be lauded for their timeliness in filing their Reply and Memorandum,19 which manifest a candid intent to settle the issues raised and not to delay unduly the resolution of Sandiganbayan Case No. 0005.
The conduct of both parties in the foregoing case has made it possible for the Court to dispose of the matter in less than a year after the last pleading was filed. Such conduct should characterize the ideal that must be aspired for by parties involved in cases of ill-gotten wealth, when they prosecute and defend their causes before the courts - - with utmost dispatch.
The Court, however, cannot ignore earlier lapses, particularly the past lackadaisical prosecution of the present case. The voluminous records show that while the original Complaint had been filed on August 20, 1987, and subsequently expanded in 1988 to include additional and more specific allegations, it was only in 1991 - - or more than four years later - - when it was amended to include as party-defendants Gregorio Licaros, his heirs and his estate. No new evidence had surfaced within the interim period to justify their belated inclusion. The Amended Complaint was, in essence, a rehash of the earlier Expanded Complaint.
While the rules allow amendments, they must be made on just and reasonable grounds. An amendment is unwarranted if it involves facts already within the knowledge of the plaintiffs at the time of the filing of the original action; otherwise, the protracted trial involving the allegedly ill-gotten wealth of Marcos - - almost twenty years in the running - - may further stretch unreasonably with no end in sight.
More incredibly, from the time the Second Amended Complaint was filed in 1991, it took the then PCGG and the then OSG ten long years to cause the service of summons on the heirs of Gregorio Licaros.20 The OSG cannot, as it did in its Memorandum, so cavalierly dismiss the delay by conveniently pointing to the clerk of court as the official who had the duty to issue summonses to the defendants. While indeed the Rules of Court entrusts that task to the clerk of court, it behooved the plaintiff to ascertain and inform the court where the summons could be served.
As manifested in the present Petition, Mrs. Concepcion Licaros, the widow of Gregorio S. Licaros, has been living at 802 Harvard Street, Mandaluyong City, to this day. The same address appears on both the private and the official records of the deceased - - particularly on his Death Certificate,21 which respondents could have obtained with facility. That it took the then OSG all of ten years just to cause the service of summons on the Licaros heirs is certainly dismaying.
After nearly twenty years, the commitment to exorcise the specter of the bygone dictatorship, a resolve that was forged on the streets of EDSA in 1986, may have sadly been lost to memory. Those who are tasked to undo past wrongs and transgressions are exhorted to tenaciously and steadfastly keep the resolve alive, so that our people could at last put a closure to this dark chapter in our history, avoid the same thorny path, and move forward in the quest for our nation's destiny.
WHEREFORE, the Petition is hereby DISMISSED and the assailed Resolutions AFFIRMED.
Costs against petitioners.
Sandoval-Gutierrez, Corona, Carpio Morales, and Garcia*, JJ., concur.
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